Writing is learning


Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor

It always surprises people when I tell them that I didn’t know anything about radar when I wrote a 10-part animated video that trains military radar techs how to run airborne radar systems. I learned the fundamentals of radar by writing (and reading and talking) about them.

It was the same with a children’s series about astronomy. And with a museum piece about the Orient. And another video about childcare.

You don’t write about something (usually) because you know all about it. You write about it to learn. And so it is with fiction and with nonfiction writers everywhere. You take an interest in something, and then you learn about it by writing.

And part of that process involves not knowing exactly where you’re heading when you begin writing. Most of the time I’m dimly aware of a beginning, middle, and an end, but I just don’t know what they’ll each consist of.

Flannery O’Connor once said that she never knew how her stories would end when she began them. The endings developed as she wrote. Sometimes she surprised herself.

And so it is with scriptwriting, or writing web copy, or any kind of worthwhile writing. If I knew how everything would end, perhaps I’d never begin. It’s the process of putting things down on paper (or screen), the time it takes for words to leave my mind and my fingertips, the time it takes to remember details and stitch them together. All of these things contribute to how a piece develops and ends. And you can’t know that at the very beginning. It’s the process that stimulates my interest in completing it.

In fact, if I knew how every one of my videos would look when I began writing them, I’d probably lose interest. For me, it’s the telling of the story, weaving it with picture and sound, and then the eventual collaboration with camerapeople and editors that make the whole more than it was to begin with. But that’s another story.

In short, everyone can write. And yet, just because people watch more videos, more commercials, more media in general than ever before does not qualify them to create it.

Clients continually tell me that they write, and sometimes that a writer won’t be necessary on their project. And then I try as fast as I can to disengage from the project, because I know it won’t be successful.

If I ask, how many scripts have you written? “How hard can it be?” is their response. “I’ve watched a lot of videos!” Sigh.

You don’t send someone who wants to jog out on a marathon on her first day, do you? Even though she’s seen a lot of marathons? That would be silly, and perhaps painful.

Similarly, you don’t try your hand at specialty writing just because you have an ego-driven need or because you want to save money. The writing of your script is the essence of the video or print ad or web site that will be. Don’t leave this to a rookie, unless your audience is also composed of rookies. Your writer will need to be eyeball-to-eyeball, if you will, with your audience. On its level, whatever that may be. A good writer learns how to speak to any audience.

To be a successful scriptwriter (among other things), you need to learn how to read scripts. All kinds of scripts. Dramatic scripts. Documentary scripts. Training scripts. Educational scripts. Do you think that any Hollywood screenwriter ever succeeded on his or her first try, without getting to know the medium? Same with scriptwriting for an educational or a corporate audience.

Next, practice writing. Practice synthesizing ideas for others. Practice generating and maintaining excitement about a topic. Practice writing the way that people talk to each other. Above all, practice learning. Because that’s what writing is about. If you don’t reach a revelation, or a series of them, you won’t be able to communicate a topic to your audience.

Only then will you be able to call yourself a writer. And it won’t be because you know how to write one sentence following on another. It will be because you know how to learn well enough to create a meaningful story for your audience.

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